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Cambodian cyber law could shutter freedom of expression

Cambodia's secretive draft law on cyber crime is unreasonably restrictive, say its critics, far too widely drawn and, if passed in its current form, could close down one of the country's last spaces for free expression.

In May 2012, the Cambodian government announced it was drafting a Cybercrime Law. Ignoring calls to allow public input, the government has kept the draft secret, confirming only that it plans to put the law before parliament later this year.

Despite the government's opaque approach, an English translation of the draft was leaked to Article 19, a British-based freedom of expression advocacy group, which earlier this month posted it online along with a highly critical assessment.

Article 19 warned that the draft "falls well below international standards on the rights to freedom of expression, information and privacy." And, it added, should it pass in its current form, it would jeopardize the space for free speech online - and that in a country whose media is largely controlled by the ruling party.

"The government must hold full and meaningful consultations with civil society and must ensure that it complies with international standards on the right to freedom of expression, information and privacy," Article 19's executive director Thomas Hughes said. "In its current form the draft law leaves great room for the curtailment of free speech online."

symbolic picture for Internet surveillance - a finger hovers over a smartphone

Many of Cambodia's Internet users go online via smartphones

The draft's nadir is reached in Clause 28, whose vague wording criminalises a host of offences. Alleged transgressors would find themselves investigated by a committee whose members, not encouragingly, would be appointed by the ruling party. Among Clause 28's list of nebulous crimes are: damaging morals and family values; undermining the country's "sovereignty and integrity"; affecting "the integrity of any government agencies or ministries or officials"; inciting "anarchism" or causing insecurity.

The consequence, said Article 19, is that anyone who displeases the government could be jailed for up to three years merely for expressing a view online that the ruling party doesn't like, or for offending corrupt officials in the cosy nexus of politicians, businesspeople and military that controls - and has long plundered - Cambodia's resources.

Political angle

Despite repeated efforts, DW was unable to speak to Minister of Post and Telecommunications Prak Sokhon, or to Ou Phannarith, who heads the ministry's ICT Security Department and who was a member of the drafting team. One of those who helped to write the law, Nhek Kosal Vithea, declined to comment.

There is little doubt, though, of the law's potential reach: four million Cambodians (from a population of 15 million) use the internet, many on mobile phones. That number is climbing fast as 3G-coverage expands across the country in an online environment that can be combative, freewheeling and even vitriolic towards the ruling party - in sharp contrast to the saccharine offerings on government-controlled television and radio.

The internet was a key battleground in last year's general election, and although the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) narrowly lost at the ballot box (it claims it was cheated of victory), there is no doubt that it won the online battle, especially on Facebook, which is hugely popular among young Cambodians.

Political commentator Ou Virak said there was a clear connection between what happened online during last year's election and the ruling party's current efforts to restrict the online space.

"Definitely there is a link - the government officials are really frustrated with what's happening on Facebook and they understand that they are losing the battle online," he told DW. "They have spent a lot of money online on top-down propaganda, but that approach doesn't work."

The draft has also unsettled some people closer to the corridors of power. Leewood Phu, a government adviser on information technology, told DW that the draft law failed on two key counts: first, the process was entirely lacking in input from the public.

"[And in the] drafting of the law there were no consultations with existing judges or lawyers," he said in reference to the harsh punishments outlined in Clause 28, some of which are tougher than the sanctions for the same offences committed offline.

"We have this Criminal Code in place already - so why are we trying to invent a new wheel?" he asked. "All you have to do is weigh the mistake or the guilt on this Cybercrime Law and then use this existing Criminal Code to punish them. You don't need to put all these new [punishments] in place."

Doing that, he added, would also increase the chance that the law could be abused.

The first of many

The Cybercrime Law is not the only controversial draft on parliament's schedule this year. Among the others are: the Law on Trade Unions - whose provisions have been kept secret; the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations; the Law on the Supreme Council of the Magistracy; the Law on the Status of Judges and Prosecutors; and the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Courts.

The last three, which were also drawn up behind closed doors, have passed the government's internal review and will be sent to parliament in the coming days. Cambodia's courts have long been criticized for being under the thumb of the executive, and there are fears that this legislative triumvirate will further weaken what marginal independence they have.

symbolic picture for twitter and facebook

Social media platforms such as Facebook are popular

"Each of these laws will have far-reaching impacts on the status of human rights in Cambodia, in particular with regards to freedom of expression, fair trial rights and freedom of association and collective bargaining," warned the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), an NGO.

The argument over the draft Cybercrime Law comes as Cambodia enters its tenth month of political stalemate since July's general election, which official results show the ruling party narrowly won.

But the 55 lawmakers-elect from the opposition CNRP are boycotting the 123-seat parliament, leading CCHR to call on the legislature on April 20 to delay adopting the three laws until MPs from both parties "have taken their seats and until broad and public consultations are organized on the draft laws."

As part of that, CCHR has also called on parliament to make public all draft laws and allow civil society time to assess and provide feedback, as provided for under the Constitution, it stated. Whether the ruling party will listen remains unclear.